Monday 22 April 2019

Trip to Toulouse remains a rite of passage on Leinster drive for five

Isa Nacewa of Leinster . Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa of Leinster . Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When the Leinster and Toulouse ships met in the 2010 European semi-final, the kingpins put the most recent European champions in their place and moved on to collect their fourth title.

A year later, they met again in the semi-final in Dublin and passed in the night.

On Sunday, the two teams meet for the first time since 2011 and in the intervening years it is the Irishmen who have hoovered up titles at a rate of knots while Toulouse have sunk below the surface.

After a year plumbing the depths of the Challenge Cup, they are back in the big time with a more impressive looking line-up than they've had for some time.

Although Freddie Burns played a leading role, they managed a creditable win in Bath last weekend to set things up nicely for the visit of the champions.

And there is enough experience in the Leinster hierarchy to know that the holders won't have it their own way despite their own success against Wasps on opening night.

Nightmares

Scrum coach John Fogarty started at hooker the last time they met on French soil in Michael Cheika's final European game eight years ago and says he still has nightmares.

"When you go over there, it is almost an attack on the senses," he explained.

"There's an atmosphere. There's a history. There's so much about Toulouse that you have to respect.

"We understand that."

Much of that history must seem ancient to many of the young guns in the Leinster dressing-room, to whom Toulouse's time at the top belongs to a foreign, pre-HD world.

The coaches won't be long in reminding them of what they can expect.

"Toulouse hasn't changed. There is still an atmosphere.

"There's still a group of players and group of coaches and a group of supporters that love the game," Fogarty said.

"They play the game with huge passion. That hasn't changed for me. They've had a good start in the Top-14 and they've had an away win against Bath.

"They will prepare for this game. They are well coached. They've got some very good players, are well-organised and have got an away win.

"They are going to be confident. They've got world-class players and huge size in their pack. And they've got backs that can catch you.

"They can rumble, rumble, rumble, and, bang, they can break out and catch you. There are lots of similarities to the challenge, it's the same."

Having won a couple of comfortable quarter-finals against Toulouse in recent years, Munster fans may raise an eye-brow to hear the four-time champs talked up.

But there are tentative signs that the old power-house is awakening, thanks in part to the clever recruitment of All Blacks Jerome Kaino and Charlie Faumuina.

Tighthead prop Faumuina would be part of Steve Hansen's World Cup plans had he stuck around and, while Kaino's best days are behind him, he is the kind of player an Irish province would love to sign to lead a team and an organisation a la Isa Nacewa or Brad Thorn.

Some players arrive up to the Northern Hemisphere looking a little heavier, a little slower and happy to collect a pay-cheque, but the teak-tough flanker looks as lean as ever and is a serious signing.

"He's world-class," Fogarty said.

"He is a World Cup-winning player, very, very competitive.

"He's playing hard. You can see off the ball, when you're watching him, how much it means to him in his reactions.

"When they get a turnover or when the team goes well he's showing his emotion.

"He's bought into what they do and he's playing with passion and emotion. He looks like he's right on it. He's a handful.

"Charlie Faumuina is another one playing hard. He got a turnover on the line.

"You've got to respect that - not only that - but how they play the game - scrum, maul, at the breakdown.

"There's (Joe) Tekori, how combative he is. He is a huge handful.

"We played against him a number of years ago when he played for Castres and we came undone.

Intensity

"That intensity they can bring to the game is something that has to be dealt with."

For all that he has an eye on their opponents, Fogarty's focus is on his own charges and the prospect of them getting too carried away with Friday's performance.

"For us, now, our mindset is the first thing that needs to be checked," he said.

"Are we patting ourselves on the back a little bit too much?

"Are we listening to all this chat about our game at the weekend? "Or are we preparing for what's going to be a very difficult game?"

If this is to be their fifth success, winning in Toulouse would be a rite of passage.

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